In most states, including Washington, an employee who wins a lawsuit for unpaid wages is entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees. As most employers know, a getting sued for unpaid wages brings additional risks that the company must pay the unpaid wages plus substantial attorney fees, which fees could in many cases be more than the wages owed. In addition, in Washington, an employer can be liable for double damages (double the wages owed) if the employer willfully fails to pay wages to an employee.
On the attorney fee component of such cases, employers may enjoy the result reached in a recent California case. In Harrington v. Payroll Entertainment Services, Inc., an employee sued for for $44.63 in unpaid overtime. When the case was over, his lawyers requested $46,000 for his attorneys’ fees. The appellate court cast scorn on the excessive request and ordered that a “reasonable” fee should be limited to $500, stating as follows:
It is as plain to us as it was to the trial court that, from the outset, this was a dispute about $44.63 and that it was not viable as a class action. It is equally plain that Harrington was underpaid as the result of an honest mistake made in reliance on a formula provided by his union, not based on any willful or knowingly wrongful conduct by PESI. (Cf. § 203.) At the risk of understatement, there is no way on earth this case justified the hours purportedly billed by Harrington’s lawyers.
We decline Harrington’s invitation to remand the matter to the trial court for its determination of a fee. The record is sufficient to allow us to make that determination, thereby saving the parties the additional fees and costs they would incur in refreshing the trial court’s recollection about this case, and avoiding any further expenditure of judicial resources. Given the nature of the dispute, the amount of the settlement, and the record on appeal, we are satisfied that the trial court could not reasonably award an amount in excess of $500, and thus fix the fee at that amount.
A copy of the case can be read here.